Sri Lankan military launch major offensive to retake LTTE territory

The Sri Lankan military has for the first time since the signing of the current ceasefire in 2002 launched a ground offensive to capture territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The operation, in breach of the ceasefire agreement, is a further major escalation of the ongoing undeclared war that erupted following the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse last November and has claimed at least 900 lives.

As a pretext, the Rajapakse government has used the LTTE’s decision on July 20 to close a sluice gate located at Mavilaru inside LTTE territory, cutting off water to thousands of rice farmers at Serunuwara near the eastern town of Trincomalee. While the government immediately denounced the move, the LTTE insisted that the action was taken on behalf of farmers around Mavilaru to protest the government’s failure to build a water reservoir that has been promised since 2002.

The LTTE decision provoked a storm of protest from Sinhala chauvinist organisations, including Rajapakse’s political allies, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The JVP-led National Patriotic Movement issued a statement on July 26 demanding that “the government should use its power to destroy the Tiger terrorists in order to activate the sluice on the waterway.”

On the same day, July 26, the government ordered air strikes against LTTE positions near Mavilaru in support of ground troops advancing from Welikanda. The following day warplanes bombed an LTTE camp at Kathiraveli, 40 kilometres from Trincomalee, killing six LTTE cadres and wounding several others.

Pressure mounted on July 28 for the military to accelerate the operation. A mob led by JHU parliamentarians, Athuraliye Rathana and Akmeemana Dayarathana, seized the sluice gate key and declared that they intended march to Mavilaru. The JHU provocation provided the military with an excuse for declaring that it would quickly secure the area and open the sluice.

On Saturday, the army massed thousands of troops near its camp at Kallaru junction at the edge of LTTE-controlled territory near Trincomalee amid continued aerial bombing and artillery shelling. Army chief of staff Nanda Mallwarachchi visited the area and announced that the troops would quickly capture Mavilaru, 4 kilometres from Kallaru junction. The government promised to open the sluice gate within 24 hours.

By yesterday afternoon, a spokesman claimed that soldiers were close to their objective but were proceeding slowly because of mines and booby traps.

The Colombo government has justified the offensive by claiming that it is necessary to release water for desperate farmers. Defence spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella declared: “The limited operation has been undertaken on humanitarian grounds to restore the basic requirement of water to the civilian population.”

The government’s concern for the plight of farmers in the Serunuwara area is completely hypocritical. Despite his long list of election promises last November, Rajapakse has failed to address the rising cost of farm inputs and falling produce prices that are squeezing farmers throughout the country, driving some to suicide.

The government ruled out any compromise with the LTTE and refused to negotiate, as required under the terms of the ceasefire agreement. The military provocatively disrupted attempts by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to meet with LTTE leaders and farmers to resolve the issue. The air force bombing occurred near a meeting in Muttur east, close to Trincomalee, on July 27.

The LTTE presented the Norwegian-led SLMM, which oversees the ceasefire, with three conditions: to construct the promised water reservoir; to lift the military’s embargo on the supply of food, building materials and other essential supplies on LTTE-held areas; and to end the harassment of civilians travelling between LTTE- and government-held areas.

Spokesman Rambukwella rejected the LTTE’s demands out of hand, declaring that the operation’s “humanitarian” aims would not be subject to negotiation. While objecting to the LTTE’s decision to cut off water supplies, the government has no compunction in maintaining its own embargo of essential items that is deepening the social crisis facing people living in LTTE-held areas.

On Saturday, aerial bombing again took place as SLMM officials, including its head Ulf Henricsson, met with the LTTE and farmers. Henricsson told Reuters: “We sat talking and got clearance from the government and tried to convince the LTTE to have confidence in the government. They dropped a bomb in the vicinity. That’s not the right signal.”

The bombings were not accidental. The Rajapakse government is not interested in resolving the water issue, but is intent on exploiting it to justify aggressive action against the LTTE.

Military attacks have not been confined to the area immediately around Mavilaru. On Saturday, the air force bombed an LTTE conference hall at Karadiyanaru, 24 kilometres northwest of Batticaloa. According to the government, 40 LTTE members were killed in the attack and others were wounded, including top LTTE regional leaders.

In a letter to the SLMM, LTTE leader in Trincomalee, S. Elilan, angrily declared that the actions of the Sri Lankan military were “tantamount to a declaration of war against the LTTE.” He called on the SLMM “to declare publicly that the ceasefire agreement is not holding anymore on the ground” and warned that the LTTE “would retaliate fiercely if Sri Lankan troopers enter our Mavilaru area. It will lead to serious consequences.”

The political responsibility for plunging country back into war rests squarely with the Rajapakse government. Following Rajapakse’s election last November, the military has colluded with anti-LTTE militia, such as the Karuna group, to stage a series of provocative attacks on the LTTE. Efforts to resuscitate the so-called peace process have floundered as the government, under pressure from the JVP and JHU, has placed new demands on the LTTE.

While the government and military have denied any involvement in the undeclared war in the North and East of the island, evidence of close cooperation with anti-LTTE paramilitaries continues to mount. In its lead article on Saturday, Lakabima provided details of the involvement of the Karuna faction in the fighting to open the Mavilaru sluice gate and in attacks on LTTE camps in the area.

By pressing the European Union and Canada in recent months to ban the LTTE as a “terrorist organisation”, the Bush administration has encouraged the Rajapakse government to adopt a more aggressive stance towards the LTTE. Following Washington’s lead, the major powers have one-sidedly denounced the LTTE, while praising the Colombo government for its restraint. There has been no international condemnation of the government’s current flagrant breach of the ceasefire.

Meanwhile the government’s preparation for all out war is continuing unabated. In recent months, it has sought to purchase military hardware not only from India and Pakistan, but also China. Last Thursday Rajapakse issued a gazette notification widening his power to extend the military service of major generals after their retirement age.

Despite paying lip service to the need for a negotiated peace, the latest offensive makes clear that the government’s aim is to plunge the country back into war in a desperate attempt to crush the LTTE militarily.